Culture commentators are worried that “the rules have changed” for men.
We’re fairly certain the “rules” are the same—be a decent person, respect others—though public accountability has never been greater. If men taking responsibility for their actions is causing a collective identity crisis, we do need to change the rules for raising boys.
We’ve spent a lot of time working and living in Kenya, where Maasai boys once came of age in ritual hunts for lions. A display of strength, endurance and resourcefulness, it was both symbolic and a survival skill. Deadly predators pose a real threat to livestock and livelihoods.
When lion populations became critically endangered, the Maasai Olympics became the new tradition: running, jumping and hunting games to celebrate Maasai warrior culture. Girls were invited to participate for the first time.
Today’s Maasai warriors devote their strength to new pursuits. Wilson Meikuaya, the last of the lion-hunting generation, fights for both Maasai girls and boys to go to school instead of early marriage or work outside the home.
“A degree, that’s the mane of a lion,” he told us. “That’s what it means to be a current warrior.”
What can Canadians learn from this? Granted, the situations are very different. But we too are searching for rituals to raise a generation with a more nuanced understanding of gender norms—one that doesn’t propagate destructive behaviour or patriarchal values.
We need to overhaul masculinity in North America, and like the Maasai, our coming-of-age traditions are a good place to start.
Let’s celebrate male role models who show emotional vulnerability. Prince Harry is an absolute legend for opening up about past struggles with grief, violent thoughts and mental health. When kids put up posters of their heroes over beds, ask them why they admire those people. Talk about different kinds of bravery. Helping others—and asking for help—also takes courage.
We need boys to grow into better allies. Action-movie masculinity teaches kids that heroes charge in, beat up bad guys and save the day. In real life, it’s better to listen and learn from those affected by a problem. Sometimes being the sidekick is more helpful. Teach them to use status and privilege to support, not overtake.
Team sports offer lessons about cooperation instead of aggression, celebrating assists as well as goals. When your future pro athlete gives up the winning shot or congratulates an opponent, that behaviour deserves post-game ice-cream as much as hitting a homerun. Talk about the importance of helping others claim their victories.
We can teach boys strength without teaching them to dominate. Too many guys responded to #MeToo with comments offering to beat up harassers. The world doesn’t need more aggressive men. It needs men strong enough to have awkward conversations challenging our peers’ catcalling and mansplaining before it escalates. It needs boys to understand that masculinity isn’t about winning fights, just like the Maasai hunt was never about killing a lion.
The rules haven’t changed, but there’s still a chance for the next generation of boys to grow into responsible, self-aware men. Let’s teach them.
Craig Kielburger and Marc Kielburger are the co-founders of the WE Movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.